The Microbus Diaries

“We sure know who did it. It was the invisible hands.”

Thus spoke the rider of my late night microbus, throwing his head forward over a swine neck. I was sitting at the very end of the vehicle, over the back wheels Cairenes usually try to avoid, the maverick drivers usually taking wild bursts with their imaginary Lamborghini, either out of action-movie enthusiasm or due to the effect of pain-killers, swinging the vehicle and jolting the asses of the poor passengers who had the ill fate to sit there. But I just loathe the idea of collecting and delivering the fare every now and then – the sacred duty of any passenger who rides anywhere but the very back seat.

The heavily mustached fellow, who has hair of salt and pepper, was referring to the bomb that exploded in the Botroseyya church in Cairo, one of the most prominent and art-filled churches in my land. The bomb killed 25 people and wounded 45; that’s the only exact truth we know so far. At first, the terrorist who did it was a woman, carrying about 14 kilograms of explosives in a wondrous bra, before turning into a man with an explosive belt. Sisi, our wondrous president and self-decorated marshal, stated the man’s age as 22, then it turned out to be 17, then it was said he was in jail, then said he was on leave until being sentenced and had run away to Sudan. His name was xyz, then they found a Twitter account of him with his cute Islamic name of Abou Whatever Bin Whoever, then ISIS claimed responsibility for the slaughter, calling him Abou Hellever Bin Blowjob. If your head is spinning a little after such a maze, it’s not your fault.

Anyway, it seems that the fellow here in the microbus has another version of the truth: The Invisible Hands did it. You know such nicknames for whatsoever you can imagine: foreign services, secret foreign organizations, foreign states, foreign goblins, and foreign jinns. Two absolute truths are always hunting the minds of a good deal of my people here: foreign and jinns. It seems everyone has agreed, all nodding their heads in that wisdom, that deep wisdom of old lands and ancient civilizations. “No Egyptian would ever do this to his people!” another fellow shouted, giving the world his gaze through heavy spectacles. Another passenger, who’s occupying the royal chair just beside the bored driver, said with his the alertness that suits a bald head, “But who actually did this?”

“Who?” the mustache replied.

“The Brotherhood for sure!” said the alert guy.

“Well, I think we just hang all of our problems on that peg,” the mustache replied. Minutes before, this very mustache was praising our marshal-president’s cleverness in paying the dead and wounded families some good money (by Egyptian standards), which the bald head and the other passengers seemed to dislike discreetly – they’re Copts, you know.

The spectacles had to intervene. “Come on! You know it’s them!” Another cosmic truth goes out.

“I do not know!” The mustache replied.

You don’t know?!” cried the spectacles.

“I don’t know!” the mustache replied.

I was silent because I was amused just listening; it seemed to me that the other two people apart from the driver were being tactfully silent. The driver looked purely bored, genially rebuffed. He was just waiting for another two or three passengers so he could hit the road; he’d been more enthusiastic minutes before when they were speaking about a famous superstar who died recently; the mustache, the spectacles, and the bald head were all raving about many of his movies, including one iconic role he did in a spy drama featuring the story of an Egyptian mole living in Israel, our televised victory against the Jewish state, as Netanyahu loves to call the state he runs.

How did we get from movies to explosions?

Now the driver, who really looked like he was about to hang himself, appeared to propose a solution to a situation such as the one we had: adding a pound or so to our fare, so he can just get going with his car fare complete. It’s such a saga in the late night micro-buses; sometimes people refusing to add money, so drivers stay where they are, while other passengers are stuck in between. These silent cockfights can make the microbus wait for hours. Usually some passengers will argue that the driver could pick up more people on the road. Some drivers buy this logic, and others don’t, and the latter are the ones who won’t repay the increase in the fare after getting more passengers in the bus, just after few minutes sometimes.

That is one of two things that usually happens in microbuses late at night. The other is the fare itself. Most days riding a microbus late at night I witness a guy objecting to the fare the driver proposes, saying he just rode yesterday for 25 percent less than this. I tend to agree with such an observation, but usually other passengers either fall silent or criticize the passenger himself. Others who are more of a Zeus and ambivalent might declare in that melancholy tone of a hero, “fifty piasters? I get that.” You can imagine another very short quarrel erupting over the passenger, who is insisting that he’s not indignant and that he can pay, so he pays.

This driver was waiting, but the microbus was heated with talking. “The people who did that are the bad, low people,” the mustache said firmly. “And who are they…?”

The bald head returned to the arena again with more alertness that ever. “I don’t know!” “Man!”

“Look, religiously I can’t say they did it, it’s a sin to say so when you don’t know who it was!” the mustache said piously.

“The Brotherhood!” the spectacles persisted.

The mustache pointed a finger to the spectacles and claimed “You’ll be judged! You’ll be judged before God in the End of Days for such a claim, whether it’s right or not!” The finger, or judgment day, or God Himself had an effect; the spectacles felt silent.

The mustache was riding in the middle, the favorite spot after the front chair (or maybe just the favorite of lots of people), and for the people who advise the smooth fair delicious sultry blonde foreign women to stay if they ride a micro-bus, not to get harassed, or God forbid, raped. He seemed like a vocal guy, a small officer in one province of the Roman Empire, who doesn’t fear taking responsibility for his own words and for collecting the fare. Now, after praising the president-marshal, he’s speaking about the impossible prices of everything, how we are having hard times after the last austerity measures. “They’re treating us like dogs!” the bald head said.

The mustache was fast to blame the Fat Cats for all of that, how greedy and bad they are. I told you he’s such a responsible guy, I bet he’s the Zeus who would pay the needed fifty piasters. The mustache went off his monologue, while one of the two silent men, a skinny guy with a long nose, who happened to be sitting beside him, listened thoughtfully, or seemed to, before saying to him finally “You know what? You as a poor person are living better than the rich; you don’t have all their problems, you live way better than them.”

Suddenly, as if the economy talks had resurrected his silent wish to words, the driver suggested a solution. We agreed to pay more. The last silent guy, a pale man with high cheekbones, looked to my leather jacket, and my newly groomed mustache myself, as he was collecting the fare from me, I saw that he was content in his eyes, telling himself how wise he was not to speak in presence of man who looked just like a detective, and we hit the road.

 

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Muhammad Aladdin is a noted Egyptian novelist and was born in Cairo on October 7th, 1979. He was chosen as one of the most important Egyptian writers in the new millennium by the Egyptian weekly Akhbar Al-Adab (News of Literature) in 2010, and is one of the ‘’Six Egyptian writers you don’t know but you should’’ by The Millions. He has written 5 novels and 4 collections of fiction; among the noted work his first novel The Gospel According to Adam, The Idol, A Well-trained Stray, and his latest The Season of Migration to Arkadia. He has contributed to several publications like the Lebanese An Nahar and MTV’s Rebel Music. He lives in between Cairo and Berlin dedicating his full time for writing.

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